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Framing symbolic representation: exploring how women’s political presence shapes citizens’ political attitudes

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Research on whether descriptive representation enhances the legitimacy of, closeness to and satisfaction with political institutions, as well as levels of political engagement, has produced mixed results. This may be caused by the empirical and methodological challenges underpinning this inquiry, like reverse causation and endogeneity. To overcome such constraints, we use a framing experiment embedded in nationally representative online surveys in Spain and Portugal. We show that symbolic effects on women’s political engagement and system evaluation are fundamentally driven by perceptions of a heightened gender balance in political institutions, even when barriers to access on equal terms or gendered portrayals of women politicians’ competency are presented to respondents. Male citizens also evaluate the system more positively with frames referencing a more level political field, even when women politicians are depicted as not sufficiently prepared. Raising awareness of gains made in women’s descriptive representation is thus instrumental to positive symbolic effects.
Key messages

  1. Symbolic effects do not happen in a vacuum. Citizens adjust their political attitudes in response to frames highlighting greater women’s descriptive representation.

  2. A generalised role model effect for political engagement is found among female citizens, and more positive evaluations of the system are made by both female and male citizens when the playing field is presented as increasingly level.

  3. Since a more equitable political field boosts female citizens’ political engagement and system evaluation, news outlets and political institutions have the responsibility to raise awareness of gains made in descriptive representation.


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Keywords: descriptive representation; framing; gendered mediation; political attitudes; survey experiments; symbolic representation

Affiliations: 1: Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain 2: School of Global & Public Affairs, IE University, Spain 3: ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal

Appeared or available online: December 2, 2019

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